It was the way the leaves fell. As Mae Lynn pulled into the driveway her hands were shaking on the wheel, and low in her throat she craved a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked since she was pregnant with her first child; Lizzy was a sophomore now at UVA. She switched off the ignition, unable to bear the idea of herself as the devious contrivance of mud and electrical impulses she suddenly felt herself to be.
Mason Station had a woodsy feel because the developers had left trees standing, a rarity in the suburbs around the capital. The trees enhanced the neighborhood’s feel of secluded privilege. She sat in the car watching brown leaves detach themselves one by one from branches on the trees in her yard and drift spinning to the ground. They were unstoppable. It had been such a long time, she had difficulty recognizing what she was experiencing as disgust. She was the thickening woman in a Lexus who had just betrayed her husband.
Fear swiped her with its obscene paw, and she flinched. As if it had never gone away. As if she hadn’t spent thirty years building up her solid self, chinking the dark holes with light. A memory came with told-you-so vengeance: she and Jack on the swampy edge of a lake, chain-smoking wacky weed. A short cold day, the sun doing magic tricks as it fell down red. When it grazed the horizon, she fell apart.
Fear was not enough word for what had washed over her, that terrible sunset at twenty. Invisible birds of prey swooped from the darkening sky to pick at the pieces of her coming off: arms and legs, volition, her naked, crying eyes. When it was over she was a stump, not enough left to cobble together a person. Jack wrote the meltdown off to grass-fed paranoia.
The next morning when she couldn’t get out of bed he changed his diagnosis. He blamed the Catholic Church. Those metaphysical fascists had centuries of experience putting people on the rack. Just when you thought you’d struggled free, they nailed you to their cross of guilt again. Jack Reardon used to talk a good political game. These days he was a lawyer at the FCC and talked bandwidth issues using words like ‘stakeholders’ and ‘equity.’
Before she got out of the car he came up behind her in the driveway, virtuous and sweaty. A year ago he had decided to get in shape. Running, he’d lost thirty pounds and gained enthusiasm. These days he looked like a mature version of the man she had married: a broad face ideal for communicating emotion, muscular shoulders, and a strut anyone with half a heart forgave him.
He tapped on the window.
She lowered it. “How far’d you go?”
“Eleven miles. I took an early train so I could get some distance in.” His gaze bored into her; since getting in shape her husband had been more alert. “What’s up?”
“Look at these leaves. We need to call the lawn service.”
Through exercise he was rediscovering the old Jack, who had been generous, so he was willing to pretend it was leaves on her mind. They went inside united to deal with Katelyn, who was their challenge child. Lizzy was saved from risk by her ambition, and Dan, a senior at Fairfax High School, wore his father’s affability like armor. Katelyn was a different story.
But that evening they were safe. When Jack and Katelyn drove out to pick up Mexican food they were talking easily about the Velvet Underground. Mae Lynn worried about her daughter’s fascination with ancient rock. Hearing something authentic in remastered albums, the girl felt cheated. She should have been there. Mae Lynn was always worrying she would disappear down a rabbit hole in search of a hallucinogenic caterpillar.
After they ate, Jack invited Mae Lynn to watch a Warren Zevon documentary with them, but she closed herself in the study and, feeling furtive, took her St. Theresa from the shelf. Later, in bed after the Leno monologue, Jack demonstrated another advantage of long-distance running. He sat up, rubbed her back, and told her, “I get the sense something is going on you think I won’t understand.”
“When Saint Theresa was a little girl she had this fantasy of begging her way to the Land of the Moors.”
“She wanted them to behead her so she could be reunited with God that much sooner.”
“Don’t go there.”
“All you’ll find in the Land of the Moors is sharp knives.”
Jack had been raised Episcopalian but was not wired for reflective angst. These days he thought making love was the solution to any problem that came up. Losing weight had restored his interest in sex. Until she met Brandon, they had been on the cusp of their own private renaissance.
When he cupped her breasts she pushed him away. “Please, I’m not in the mood.”
She went to Elizabeth’s room and stayed up late reading St. Theresa, a decidedly holy woman who knew herself to be drenched in sin.
In the morning Mae Lynn was grumpy on the train to the city. Jack knew enough to leave her alone; he sat with his poker buddies. When she got off at L’Enfant Plaza his goodbye glare was baleful, warning her away from the Land of Sharp Knives.
She walked three blocks to the federal canyon at the end of which rose the Justice Department annex where she worked. The sky over the capital was gray and complicated, and a loud wind blew steadily. From her office on the eighth floor she stood drinking coffee at the window, watching a plastic bag blown down the street like a tumbleweed until it caught on the face of a parking meter. A man in a green windbreaker clamped a Nationals cap to his head. A black woman in a long slit skirt shielded her hair with both hands.
Everything – the wind, the bag, the buffeted people – seemed to be insisting on something. After hard thought Mae Lynn realized it was her isolation. She was marooned on the island of herself and had quit caring about God. She had lost her sense of fearful approach. Standing at the window she saw the unlovely image reflected of a fully formed adult, wearing herself like clothes. She used to be a handmaiden, or felt like one. Why had it taken adultery to wake her up?
The self-loathing she experienced that morning was physical. Primed for something to go wrong, she made the kind of mistake that stayed with a person. Tabitha Perkins showed up late again and then screwed up the timekeeper’s log. Tabitha was lumpy as oatmeal and wore purple contacts over big, alarmed eyes. The vulnerability she radiated was too transparent to be an act. Problems at home weighed the woman down: a son with asthma, a deadbeat non-husband, a mother who sniped.
Mae Lynn, who had made the senior executive service on the back of a well regarded toughness, called her to her office to tell her, “You leave me no choice. I need to document your performance for the file.”
Putting it on paper was the beginning of the end, and Tabitha knew it. She fingered the gold crucifix hanging on a chain around her neck and gulped back tears. The situation might have stayed within the bounds of reason if she hadn’t brought Jesus into it. The girl’s puppy-dog piety set Mae Lynn off.
She stood and closed the door. Instead of the firm but supportive counseling session Tabitha was entitled to, she lit into the defenseless woman. Mae Lynn hated the idea of a self-help sort of God, a God who handed out teddy bears as a reward for good behavior. Not that she had any patience for an angry smiter of a God, either, the kind who had to be talked out of sending lightning and locusts against your people because you failed to appease him in his wrath. The churchy people got it wrong. Everybody got it wrong, Tabitha wrongest of all. She wept silently through Mae Lynn’s tirade, her fingers returning reflexively to the crucifix, a victim praying to achieve martyr status.
When Mae Lynn’s fury was spent she was ashamed of what she had done and promised the girl gently, “I’ll show you a draft before I ask you to sign anything.”
Tabitha nodded, not trusting herself to speak, and escaped Mae Lynn’s office as if fleeing evil.
That afternoon Mae Lynn was relieved when Jack wasn’t on the train. She took a seat next to a man with an eagle on his tie working a crossword puzzle in which all the words had something to do with patriotism. For the length of the commute to Northern Virginia she read Saint Theresa with a mounting sense of self-betrayal. She drove from Mason Station to St. Francis of the Fields. That was the church in which she and Jack had raised their kids, though they hadn’t attended lately. The pastor was Ethiopian. Father Frumentius was an infectiously funny man who knew how to speak to his congregation about the perils of their prosperity without causing them to tune out. He was an easy man to talk to. But as Mae Lynn pulled into the parking lot of the rectory, resistance rose inside her and she pulled back out again. She drove home and fixed more of a supper than her family expected on a work night.
* * * *
Two days later she was standing on her Uncle Jimmy’s porch in Buffalo. Mae Lynn seldom came back to Black Rock, which always looked a little worse than the last time she’d been home. Jimmy Mallory’s house had sunk with the neighborhood. The floorboards needed painting, and the mailbox dangled. She rang the bell and waited while her uncle shuffled through the house, then peered at her through a yellowed lace curtain before opening the door.
“Nobody died, Uncle Jimmy.”
He was pushing seventy, the youngest of her father’s seven siblings and the only one left alive. He’d been a millwright at Queen City Fabricators, lucky to get out with his pension intact. He was Irish in the slightly inauthentic way of the Mallorys, cherubic and blue-eyed with a tendency to tell stories that came out as parables of the working life. Since his wife had died he took obsessive care of his bulldog, making sure Blakey wore a sweater when they ambled around the old neighborhood on frigid winter days. Having seen pictures of Mae Lynn’s house in Mason Station, he made a big deal out of how far a fireman’s daughter had traveled from Black Rock.
They sat at the table in a kitchen that hadn’t changed since the Sixties. The desiccated palm crosses tucked behind framed photos showed the absent hand of Edna, who had died of leukemia three years ago. The dog rested its muzzle on Mae Lynn’s leg, a senile expression on his face, leaving a string of spittle that got quickly cold. Uncle Jimmy didn’t notice, and she shoved Blakey away. A wall clock featuring a mother-of-pearl Irish castle ticked with the rigor of death, the very beast in its implacable quiet fury.
“You want coffee, sweetie pie?”
“Can you handle instant? Us workin’ stiffs don’t keep Starbucks in the house.”
“Give me a break, Uncle Jimmy.”
His grin was malicious in a way she admired. Because he was the last Mallory of his generation she tried to do him the courtesy of explaining why she was there. An incomplete story was better than none at all.
“There’s this woman who works for me. Young, kind of heavy, very unsure of herself. She’s got nothing but problems.”
“Don’t we all?”
“Maybe, but Tabitha’s are on the verge of losing her the job. The other day I lost it with her. I gave it to the poor kid with both barrels.”
She wondered if he was listening. He seemed lost in the minutiae of getting two cups of Maxwell House made and delivered to the table. His hand trembled, serving her, and coffee spilled onto the saucer. It tasted like truth serum.
“You stop and think maybe you done this girl a favor? A federal government job is nothing to sneeze at.”
He did not say what he thought, that Mae Lynn had become too fastidious in her rich and easy life. He wanted to raise the wall of class but remembered she was family, and his guest. “I don’t give a rat’s ass why you came, I’m just glad you’re here.”
He reached to scratch the bulldog’s throat, and Mae Lynn brushed the cold spittle from her leg. She hated the damn dog. It had to do with the misplaced romance of coming home.
She let her uncle make corned beef and cabbage for her that evening, though she didn’t much care for the stuff. She slept in her cousin Mary Beth’s old room. Heating oil was high, and Uncle Jimmy kept the upstairs cold. The wind off the Niagara River was adamant. Mae Lynn rummaged in the closet for an extra comforter, then lay on her back in the dark wishing she had stayed in Virginia.
In the morning Uncle Jimmy was in a good mood. He liked having company in the house. He fixed Mae Lynn a big breakfast, then took Blakey out for their daily constitutional. The dog’s sweater was Kelly green and accentuated the barrel shape of its chest. Mae Lynn tried to work up a little affection for the animal but could not.
She drove her rental Chevy to Holy Rosary. The real name of the church she had grown up in was Our Lady of the Rosary, but only the priests had ever called it that. She parked in the rear lot and came around the windy walk to find the front doors locked. She was disappointed but would not go to the red-brick rectory and ask them to let her in. She looked across the lawn to the school she had attended through the sixth grade. She had no right to the resentment that seeing the place abandoned produced in her. The big slabs of gray stone were defaced with graffiti she couldn’t read, a slashing alien shorthand in red and black.
She was turning away to go back to the car when the door opened a crack. It opened a little more, and there was Mrs. Reilly dragging an old Electrolux by the hose.
“I know who you are, you’re the Mallory girl that went away and got rich.”
“I’m Mae Lynn, Mrs. Reilly, but I’m not rich.”
“Rich or poor, come in out of that wind.”
The vestibule was smaller and shabbier than it used to be. Mrs. Reilly was older but not superannuated. She had lost weight, hunkered down in her awkward body. In the Second World War she had served in the Women’s Army Corps, joining after her husband died on a destroyer in the Pacific. Her cheeks were lightly powdered, and an embroidered handkerchief was pinned to her gray head. She had cleaned the church for as long as Mae Lynn could remember.
“Did you want to speak with Father Crowe?”
“No… I don’t think so.”
Mrs. Reilly nodded. “Don’t mind me. I’m just about finished. I’d be gone now if this infernal machine wasn’t acting up.”
She went about her business, and Mae Lynn took a seat midway from the altar in a pew whose contours her backside remembered, the way her knees remembered the hard maroon leather on the kneeler. She took in the brilliant stained-glass stories, the Stations of the Cross in plaster relief. Behind a plain altar a theologically explicit oil painting dominated the high wall. In the center of the painting the mystical eye of God that had transfixed Mae Lynn as a kid drew a bead on her again.
Mrs. Reilly was frustrated with the vacuum cleaner, an obsolete canister model. When it failed to start, Mae Lynn went to where she stood over the machine.
“What year did you start cleaning the church, Mrs. Reilly?”
“You can call me Helen. I started in nineteen fifty two.”
“Let’s go buy a new vacuum.”
“The pastor would skin me alive. There’s no budget for vacuum cleaners, not this year.”
“I’ll pay for it.”
Helen Reilly was dubious but consented to ride with Mae Lynn, directing her to a shop downtown where they picked out a top-of-the-line Electrolux.
“I had a brother sold them door to door, back in the Dark Ages,” she explained. “So I’m partial to the brand. You sure you want to pay this much? I had no idea they’d gone so high.”
Mae Lynn told her she was sure. Back at the church, she carried the new machine inside for the older woman.
“It doesn’t work, does it?” Mrs. Reilly said as she locked the Electrolux into a closet.
She shook her head. “I mean coming here to sit in the holy quiet.”
“No, I guess it doesn’t. Does it work for you?”
Mrs. Reilly shook her head so slowly it did not exactly suggest a no. “I have a theory.”
“What’s your theory?”
But the question seemed to startle her. She realized she had been on the verge of giving away a private valuable. “Never mind. It’s just an old woman’s foolishness. Thank you again for the machine. If you’ll give me your address I’m sure Father Crowe will want to send you a letter of appreciation.”
Mae Lynn told her she didn’t need a letter from the priest.
* * * *
That evening Blakey camped out at the side of Mae Lynn’s chair and slobbered on her jeans. The doggy smell it emitted made her want to gag. Uncle Jimmy was delighted with how well they were getting along, and Mae Lynn tried to hide her dislike.
“Do you go to Mass, Uncle Jimmy?”
“Not much, since your Aunt Edna died. They’ve kind of watered it down, if you know what I mean.”
“What do you know about Mrs. Reilly, the woman who cleans the church?”
“Helen? She’s a queer one, although I don’t mean homosexual. Where’d you run into her?”
“I like her.”
But Uncle Jimmy wasn’t paying attention. He was concentrating on the numbered balls bouncing in a wire cage on the television screen. A woman with telegenic cleavage and a monochrome smile announced the winning lottery numbers as she drew balls from the cage.
Before Mae Lynn went to bed Jack called her on the cell.
“I know what you’re doing, Mae Lynn.”
“Then you know more than I do.”
“You’re grubbing around in your sordid Catholic past trying to find a God bone to gnaw on. It’s pure self-indulgence.”
It was his way of telling her he knew something was up. She surprised herself by not panicking. If he suspected her of having a lover, it meant his instincts were sharp again, one more byproduct of a healthy exercise regimen. Good for Jack.
“Me and God, we’re quits,” she told him.
“Bullshit. You want a few days to yourself, take ‘em. But if you want something real to worry about, I found a nickel bag of weed in Katelyn’s dresser drawer.”
Mae Lynn went to bed obsessed with an image of her daughter holding a roach clip. Did people still use them? But it was Brandon who kept her awake. Brandon Bennert was geekish and wore those black-framed glasses the kids in TV ads sported. She had met him when he came to her office to replace a computer. He was a small man, slight, and moved like a cat. In addition to his IT job, he played bass in a band that was getting noticed in the U Street clubs; she read the reviews in the Post but hadn’t seen him perform. Because he was so much younger, she kept a ferocious watch on him from the start. She had no interest in being his real-world version of a milf. But he passed every test. She was desired by him for the person he saw, if not the person she actually was.
They had made love on three occasions. The sex, she quickly learned, was only sex. It was the transgression that was electric.
In the morning she went early to the church. This time the door was open. She sat in the same pew and listened to the same quiet. It was thick and opulent, like clear oil endlessly spilling. But the sensation was not what she craved. It was aesthetic; a taking in, not an emptying. Brooding, she lost track of time and was startled when Mrs. Reilly showed up to clean. When Helen came down the center aisle with the new Electrolux, she stopped at Mae Lynn’s pew and switched off the motor.
“Runs like a top.”
“I’m glad. Will you tell me what your theory is, Helen?”
After the shadow of hesitation, Mrs. Reilly told her, “I think you probably have the wrong idea about me. Most people do.”
“How is that?”
“When my husband was killed at Midway and I didn’t get married again, they all thought I was being faithful to his memory. The truth is, in the year and a half Frank and I were together, I had enough to convince me I didn’t want to stay married. Not to Frank or anybody else.”
If Mae Lynn pushed for details, Mrs. Reilly would clam up. She waited until the older woman was ready to go on.
“Well, so after the war I landed myself a job at the GM plant in Cheektowaga. Secretary to the plant manager. I suppose I’m telling you all this because Phil was from Cheektowaga.”
“Who is Phil?”
“A good Greek boy who worked in the plant. An accountant. Phillip Petalis. He would have married me if I’d said go ahead.”
“But you didn’t.”
“In those days we called them suitors. I held out until nineteen fifty two before I let him spend the night at my house. That same week I started cleaning the church. It wasn’t guilt, or not exactly. But I wanted to stay connected to the church and didn’t feel right about the sacraments, since I was having relations. I don’t have the word I need.”
“The word for what?”
“I want to say that God is mocking us, inviting us to come inside and then not being here, but that’s not quite right. Anyway it’s not really a theory, just a feeling.”
Mae Lynn would have given anything to hear more, but Mrs. Reilly had gone as far as she was willing to go. She sat in the pew until Helen finished vacuuming, then trapped her in the sacristy to ask, “Did you ever go to Confession? About Phil, I mean.”
The withering look with which Mrs. Reilly turned her away should have been enough to keep her away, but that evening after dinner Mae Lynn asked her uncle if he knew where Helen lived.
“Unless she’s moved, she’s still over on Landrey, on the north corner of Creeley.”
The lights were on at 411 Landrey when Mae Lynn drove over. It was an old-fashioned two-story frame house, the twin of Uncle Jimmy’s though in better repair. Mae Lynn stood on the porch asking herself what she intended, showing up uninvited. When Mrs. Reilly answered her knock, she still didn’t know. Helen wore a white apron over her dark dress, and her thin hair was mussed. “I figured you’d be on your way back to Virginia.”
“I’m sorry to bother you.”
“I’m baking sugar cookies for my nephew Troy. He’s a grown man and in the army, but he loves my sugar cookies.”
It was as close to an invitation as Mae Lynn was going to get. She followed Mrs. Reilly into the kitchen, where the ingredients for sugar cookies were spread across a counter. The oven bell dinged, and Mrs. Reilly grabbed a pot holder and took out a tray.
Mae Lynn ate a cookie and nodded. “They taste like my old life.”
“I was unfriendly this morning. I’m sorry.”
“I was rude. I’m not usually so pushy.”
“I’m off kilter, you see. I had one of my dreams again last night.”
This time Mae Lynn had the mother wit to wait until Mrs. Reilly went on.
“The Summer of Love.”
“Nineteen sixty seven. Wasn’t that what the people of your generation called it?”
“I haven’t thought about it for a long time.”
“That’s what I’ve always called it, too. But for a different reason. In the summer of sixty seven GM sent me on a training trip of some kind to Detroit. They put us up in a very nice hotel. I remember calling Phil to tell him how luxurious the place was. We were quite close all those years, Phil and I. That was why it never made sense, what I did.”
“What did you do?”
“I slept with a man. An engineer from Lima, Ohio. It happened quickly. Too quick to call it an affair. I guess the word I’m searching for is liaison.”
“Did you tell Phil?”
“No. I never had the urge. Have another cookie.”
Mae Lynn took a second cookie, and Mrs. Reilly poured her a glass of milk.
“Physically speaking – carnal; that’s another word people don’t seem to use anymore – what happened in Detroit kind of overpowered me. For once, I let myself go.”
“Did you regret it?”
Mrs. Reilly shook her head. “Not a single day. But after the liaison was when the dreams started.”
Helen hesitated a moment before explaining, “They are what you would call sexual in nature. They’ve been tormenting me off and on ever since. It’s embarrassing to be eighty three years of age and still having dreams about your body. I wonder I’m telling you.”
“It seems completely natural to me.”
Helen’s look said clearly, What’s so good about natural? “It’s how God has chosen to make fun of me.”
“Why would God want to make fun of you, Helen?”
“Don’t you see? It’s like inviting you into the church and then not being there.”
“I don’t understand.”
But Helen had reached the limit of her ability, or her willingness, to explain. “I’m sorry, all I’ve done is confuse you.”
“I’m not confused,” Mae Lynn lied.
“It’s not such a bad thing, you see.”
“Being mocked by God?”
“It keeps you on your toes.”
* * * *
The next day’s cell-phone conversation with Katelyn was a disaster. Thirty minutes later, however, the girl called back to explain how she smoked marijuana only rarely, and only under conditions of absolute safety. Her daughter’s uncanny self-possession disarmed Mae Lynn. At the same time she was able, being Katelyn, to give a daughter’s prodigal blessing on her mother’s absence.
It was time to go home, but Mae Lynn wasn’t ready. She was relieved when Uncle Jimmy made his pitch.
“Here’s the situation, sweetie pie. The gang from Queen City is taking a bus to Atlantic City. Billy Blake – that’s who Blakey is named after – put the trip together. He was our shop steward. Usually I don’t go because I can’t leave the dog. But he likes you. Hell, he loves you. Can I leave him with you for a couple days?”
It was all the excuse Mae Lynn needed to postpone her return flight. After Uncle Jimmy left she poured herself a shot of his Bushmills and set to work organizing the pantry, where she found among the foodstuffs wrench heads from a socket set, a Wal-Mart bag full of Aunt Edna’s bras, and an envelope stuffed with losing lottery tickets.
The work enfolded her. It gave her an interval of peace that was different from the release she had thought she needed. An image of Theresa in the Avila winter came to her: a saint with a red nose gathering kindling in the snow. Her hands were badly chapped, and the trees under which she stooped were black sticks. But the envy Mae Lynn felt was a trap, and she bulled past it. She sipped a second shot. Here were cans of soup past their expiration date, and tall, narrow jars of olives in a row like scientific specimens.
Her terror began with the sense of being laughed at. She felt a kind of hilarious wrinkling, the motion of muscles so huge they bent the world out of shape. Everything crinkled, and she was a target. She sprang a leak and her insides began trickling out, forming an invisible greasy puddle on the pantry floor. With a mounting sense of dread, she felt the walls of her mind collapse. Over the wreckage a strange black bird hovered on the blasting wind. The bird had obsidian eyes. This is what it feels like to be undone, she noted calmly. Her observation was analytical, as though the breakdown were happening to someone else. Pretty soon there would be nothing left to disintegrate. Already she was empty enough for the terrible wind to whistle through.
Aware of her distress, Blakey padded across the kitchen and studied Mae Lynn. That was when she realized how badly she was shaking. Shaking, and then the empty shell convulsed. When she gained control of her body again she threw the whiskey glass. It broke against the cabinet below the sink, and the dog began lapping Bushmills.
The telephone seemed to be ringing. She did not move to answer it. Everything would be okay, or might be, if she held herself still for as long as it took Blakey to finish the whiskey. The glass, when she threw it, had been full. After a while, watching the dog get drunk, she remembered how to breathe.
* * * *
The next day when Jack called she was unable to say anything. There was a difference between peace and lassitude. If she could stay as she was, she would settle for the lassitude in which she was being steeped.
“You sound like you’re a million miles away, Mae Lynn.”
“It’s almost over.”
“What’s almost over?”
“I’ll call you.”
“When I can.”
An hour later she was sitting in the kitchen looking at a mop and a pail of soapy water. She intended to clean the residue of whiskey from the floor before her uncle came home. When the phone rang again she looked at the clock. 12:15. Jack must be on his lunch break. She didn’t want to talk but owed him the courtesy of picking up.
It wasn’t Jack.
“Mae Lynn? Mae Lynn Mallory? Is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me, Mrs. Reilly. What’s wrong?”
“I can’t find it.”
“You can’t find what?”
“What brush is that, Helen?”
“The brown one. I’ve looked all over the house. It’s not there.” The frustration coiled in the old woman’s voice was worse than screaming.
“Are you at home?”
“It’s the brown brush, I tell you. I can’t find it.”
“I’ll be right over.”
Mae Lynn drove fast to the house on Landrey Street. She didn’t bother to knock. She went through the rooms downstairs calling Helen’s name. No response. When she reached the kitchen, a door stood open. She went to the head of the stairs and called, “Mrs. Reilly? Helen?”
“I’m down cellar.”
She made her way down the stairs and found the big, gawky woman staring at a pile of junk towering in a corner. The cellar smelled like potatoes and coal.
“I had a dream. I like to read the paper with my soup at lunch time. I was dozing in my chair, I guess. And then I was dreaming.”
The question offended Helen, and she turned her head away. Mae Lynn spotted a folding chair leaned against the wall. She opened it and gestured to the old woman.
“Maybe you should sit down.”
Sitting in the chair, Helen seemed better. She told Mae Lynn, “It was different this time.”
She nodded. “Quite specific, as to bodily functions. The engineer was in it.”
“The man you had your liaison with.”
“Yes. He was carrying black flowers. But it was what he said set me off.”
“What did he say?”
“Not that I was going to die. Worse.”
“God doesn’t give you your dreams, you understand. He gives you the life where dreams happen. I can’t remember his name just now.”
Helen nodded thoughtfully. “‘You are death,’ he told me in the dream. Not in so many words, but that was the idea. I can’t bring back his face any more. When I woke up I remembered the brush.”
“It’s brown. Plastic, with Detroit written on the back. Very tacky. Phil got a lot of mileage about me hanging onto that ugly brush. The engineer gave it to me. A gag gift. But the night we were together, he brushed my hair for half an hour with it.”
Mae Lynn told her, “I had an affair.”
Helen nodded. “I could see that a mile off, the first day you were at Holy Rosary.”
“It’s over now. Do you think your brush might be in there?”
Mae Lynn pointed to the pile of junk, which was rich: snow tires with knobby treads, and stacks of file boxes strapped with tape. A shovel with a twisted handle. Tire chains draped like languid metal snakes. A broken-stringed harp with a golden-haired woman on the prow. A Schwinn three-speed with a wire basket and an old-timey bell on its bent handlebars. A leather guncase, the muzzle of a shotgun bristling through the zipper. Barbells and a canoe, a saxophone, an adding machine, an antiquated computer. Boxes and bags of every description.
“All that, that’s stuff belonged to Phil. He lived in an apartment. There was no storage. I never got around to cleaning it out.”
“Let’s look for your brush,” said Mae Lynn. “We can move the pile and look.”
Helen hesitated. “It could be anywhere. At the bottom of a box, stuffed inside a shoe, who knows where? That’s if it’s there at all.”
The idea of moving the mountain of Phil Petalis’ junk seemed like a good one to Mae Lynn. She was convinced it was the reason she had come back to Black Rock. She was shaking off the lassitude that had taken her over after the breakdown in Uncle Jimmy’s pantry. What replaced it had no name but felt fresh. With a little encouragement it might become elation. The sensation of being laughed at was back, but this time it was like relief.
She reached for the harp. Holding it carefully by the golden head, she lifted it down from the pile. She was sure the brush was in there somewhere. When they found it, she would take Helen upstairs and brush her hair for half an hour.